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New Mexico's final season: The End...

Article Written by Ryan Swanson
Published: September 6, 2019

Less than a month before the start of last year’s college season, the University of New Mexico announced that, due to ongoing budget deficits and Title IX concerns, the 2018 season would be the final one for its nationally prominent men’s soccer program. This decision to cut soccer created a maelstrom of debate and controversy. The state’s politicians (among others) got involved. But for the Lobos players and coaches, there was still a season to play. This series is an insider’s deep dive into that final season, and the story of a team fighting for a proper ending. Be sure to read Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.

***

It’s an hour and fifteen minutes before the final home game—ever—for the New Mexico men’s soccer program and Fish is working the vacuum cleaner. Upon entering the team’s meeting room on game day, Fish discovered that a recent storm had caused a leak. This leak caused a tile to drop from the roof, creating a mess. And Fish won’t have it: “I don’t want this place to look like a [expletive],” he says.

Within a few minutes, the project has consumed most of the coaching staff. Fish is joined by Choi, Kelly, and Champ in the cleanup effort. A ceiling tile is borrowed from another part of the building. A ladder is positioned and the tile is changed out. Vacuuming ensues. When the players arrive a few minutes later, there is no evidence that their meeting room was ever out of order.

“You’ve got to play your nuts off today,” Fish tells the team. “We send off the three seniors with a win tonight.” Together the team heads up the hill one more time. 

That the last men’s soccer game at the University of New Mexico involves a conference foe from West Virginia (the Marshall Thundering Herd) in some ways explains why soccer is on the chopping block. The union makes little sense from a geographic perspective. 

But when former Athletic Director Paul Krebs secured a position in the C-USA in 2012 for Fishbein and his dominant program, the talk was all about future opportunities. “We thought our league (the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) was holding us back,” Krebs said at the time. 

***

The last home game means its senior night too. Matt Dorsey, Simon Spangenberg, and Antoine Vial will be recognized in a pregame ceremony. The logistics of this too fall on Champ. Still, Fish wants to know the details.

“Is your girlfriend coming out on the field with you?” Fish asks Antoine at practice, in front of the team.

“I’m still thinking about it.”

“You don’t have to marry her. Or you could—we’ll do it right there,” Fish offers.

The senior ceremony goes off without a hitch, and with no wedding. There are hugs all around. The end of a college athletic career is a momentous event.

The backstory of the evening is not lost on Marshall. Instead of lining up with Marshall on one side and New Mexico the other for the national anthem, the Marshall players intersperse themselves with the Lobos. Arms go over shoulders in both directions. 

When it comes to losing a program like New Mexico’s, the entire soccer community shares a sense of grief and apprehension. For a non-revenue sport like soccer, with Title IX still a work in progress at many universities, there is always the threat of cutting sports. 

New Mexico Marshall

(Marshall and New Mexico stand together before UNM’s final home game)

Because remember: 

In 1983, there were 146 DI men’s wrestling programs. Today there are 76. 

In 1983, there were 181 DI men’s swimming and diving programs. Today there are 133.

A solid crowd has assembled for the program’s curtain call. The night is cool, in the low 60s and falling at game time.

Feeding off the energy, the Lobos come out firing. Less than 30 minutes in—at which point in their last game they had been down by four goals—Scotty pokes away a ball from Marshall in their half. Dorsey centers it to Taylor who fires a left-footed rocket into the top right corner. Goal!

Three minutes later, Dorsey breaks into the clear and, with Marshall’s goalie charging, slips a soft grounder into the net. 2-0. 

New Mexico goal

(Dorsey after scoring a goal versus Marshall)

The Lobos enter the hurdles shed for halftime looking good. Dorsey gets in first, and taking no chances, he raises the garage door a bit. Even still, up 2-0 and with proper head clearance, Fish is amped. “Can we bring the intensity for the first ten minutes?” Fish yells. “That’s my biggest thing.”

Again, the Lobos cannot.

Marshall comes out strong and scores a quick goal five minutes into the second half. 2-1. This, however, seems to wake the Lobos up. They generate good chance after good chance as the half wears on. With five minutes left, New Mexico begins to stall. Several times, Taylor dribbles the ball into the corner and shields it from Marshall, letting precious seconds tick off the clock.

But then it happens. Again.

With a minute left, there’s a Lobo foul just outside the box. Marshall lines up for a free kick. After watching his teammates jostle for position for a few seconds, Colin Mocyunas takes matters into his own hands. He lofts a bending ball over UNM’s wall and just past a diving Ford’s fingertips. Goal. Game tied, 2-2.

Regulation expires, and so too do two overtimes, without another goal for either side. In the locker room after the game, Fish catches himself referring to the game as a loss. Certainly a tie has never felt more like an outright defeat. “Unbelievable,” is all Mike can mutter as he leaves the field. 

***

All that’s left is Charlotte. New Mexico is scheduled to travel to Charlotte for its last C-USA game on Saturday, November 4. Then the team will stay in town for three days, at the boxy University Hilton, before beginning play in the C-USA tournament, hosted this year by Charlotte.

“Hopefully we’ll be gone for ten days,” Fish tells the team. On departure morning, the team practices for one final time at the UNM practice facility. It’s 37 degrees. Last night was the first frost. “Thinking back to August days—hot,” Fish says. “Now it’s freezing. This is the beauty of our game.”

With that, the guys gather up the balls (the team has made it through the last practice with 40) and push back the goals one last time in Albuquerque.

The game versus Charlotte happens a wet, cold Saturday night. The players are told the pre-game meeting in Charlotte stadium locker room will happen at 6 p.m. As always, the coaches start things earlier than planned. By 5:58, Fish is well into his talk. “Not once this season have we waited until 6 p.m.,” Kelly says with a head shake and a grin.

Charlotte represents a stiff challenge for New Mexico. Coached in the style established by Jeremy Gunn, Charlotte has yet to give up a goal at home during the season. “They’ll look to play a little bit, but usually they serve it in,” Mike tells the team. This direct approach, looked down on by some soccer insiders, works in the college game.

Again there’s a bit of grass talk: “It’s a big field,” Fish reports. “It’s over seeded winter rye. The ball sits up.” The guys nod blankly.

The game plays out just as the coaches have predicted. When the ball goes into Charlotte’s half of the field, it’s usually one touch and then a boom out by the 49ers. Charlotte presses constantly. At half, the scoreboard reads 0-0, but it doesn’t feel like a tie. Charlotte has nine shots, the Lobos have none.

It’s more of the same in the second half. 

With two minutes left, the dam finally breaks.

A Charlotte corner kick yields an opportunity. Omar tries to head the ball out of the box but it falls to a waiting 49er. That 49er, Tommy Madden, scores his first goal of the season, deflecting the ball off a Lobo defender past Ford, who is in perfect position. It’s the game winner.

The postgame locker room is warm and pungent. And for the most part the mood is stable. “You played your asses off,” Fish says. “I’m proud of you.” He repeats this last point twice more. 

Having lost to Charlotte, the Lobos fall to the number 7 seed in the C-USA conference tournament. The Lobos regular season record ends up at 4-11-1. It’s the first time that the Lobos have finished the regular season with a losing record since 2001, the season before Fish took over.

With travel back to Albuquerque hardly practical, the Lobos will have stayed six consecutive nights at the business park Hilton by the time they play their next match. It’s a soccer purgatory of sorts, complete with complimentary breakfasts and afternoon practices on the Charlotte University fields.

Sunday is a recovery day.

Monday starts with a team breakfast at 9:30 and then practice at noon. The weather in Charlotte is cool and drizzly. The last of the leaves are blowing off the trees on Charlotte’s wooded campus. With nowhere else to go and the hours counting down on their season unless something changes dramatically, the Lobos practice long and hard. The guys are clearly thrilled to be out of the hotel.

As the team runs its three team possession drill, the guys compete as hard as ever. And as usual, they argue about the rules and score. Nick Barreiro, who is turning 20 today, at one point wants to change the end score. “Hey, can we play to five?” he asks. Kelly is incredulous. “We’re not even keeping score yet,” he responds.

As practice winds down, the team takes penalty kicks. Often times in college soccer, it’s the PKs that decide who moves on in the postseason. 

Since it’s Barreiro’s birthday, the final act in practice is to assemble a spanking line. As Barreiro crawls as fast as possible through his teammate’s legs, each Lobo lands a prodigious whack on the birthday boy’s backside.

“Why do you guys love this so much?” Fish asks with a shake of the head. “It’s weird.”

By Tuesday, the other C-USA teams have arrived at the Hilton. Breakfast is a sea of colors: blue for ODU, green for Marshall, gold for FIU. The omelet bar is five deep with hungry soccer players. Tuesday’s practices on Charlotte’s campus are monitored by C-USA officials. Each team gets 55 minutes.

For Joe Sorce, the team’s trainer, the end of the season has not come without a bit of progress. His prowess kicking a soccer ball has improved noticeably. “Gravity is my nemesis,” he admits. But during Tuesday’s practice, he launches several balls back towards the playing field with both accuracy and, well, height. 

The chatter at what may be the team’s final practice is similar to what’s gone on all year long. 

“You got time, bro.”

“Yeah Tom, again.”

“Good hit Omar.”

“Mikey … back side.”

“Antoine. Back post!”

“Love it Puig.”

new mexico practice

(The Lobos practicing in Charlotte, waiting for the start of the CUSA tournament)

This is soccer’s symphony. And the Lobos enjoy their practice, before a do-or-die game, on a swampy field in Charlotte, as much as any they’ve had this season. 

Everyone has done their part. Kelly has been in the hotel’s fitness room every day since the team arrived in North Carolina. “If we win tomorrow,” he says, “It’s because of me and my kicking some ass on the treadmill.” 

After three days in the Hilton, everyone is feeling stir-crazy. “Can we at least go to the mall or something?” Barreiro asks in the lobby one evening. 

***

The Lobos-Monarchs game (starting at 4:30 p.m.) is the sandwich contest. FIU and Marshall play at 2 p.m. Charlotte and UAB kick off at 7. Kentucky, as the top seed, has a draw into the second round. 

The New Mexico team gathers in a track-side tent at 3:50. “Can you bring the energy from minute one?” Fish asks. “It’s a fresh start. Play for each other. Get the energy right to start,” Fish continues.

The Lobos take the field in their New Mexico turquoise shorts and shirts. They wear red socks. Ford is in all black. There are about 20 fans in the stands, which, given that the two teams on the pitch are from New Mexico and Virginia, and it’s a Wednesday afternoon, seems about right.

The complex is eerily quiet.

The Monarchs take charge right from the start. Ford makes his first save two minutes into the contest. ODU keeps up a constant forward pressure.

Given the sparse crowd, much of what’s said on the field reverberates up the bleachers. When one of the referees pulls Puig aside for a talking to, Bailey’s objection to the interaction is heard by everyone.

“It’s not about you ref,” Bailey chastises.

“We’ll it’s not about him either,” the referee gives right back.

The Lobo defense is vulnerable, but it doesn’t break. Time after time, Tom pushes the action away from the goal and back up the sidelines. Unfortunately for the Lobos, the ball rarely goes very deep into the ODU half. As halftime approaches, the Lobos have generated just two shots on goal, neither of them requiring much of ODU’s keeper to save.

The first half ends 0-0. Ford has five saves. With the temperature dropping quickly, Kelly works to keep the guys loose.

The second half is a repeat of the first one. ODU creates all the chances; the Lobos remain on their heels. Five minutes into the terminal period, Antoine goes down. He lets out a scream. The place is silent otherwise. After several minutes on the field, Antoine is helped to the sidelines with a pulled muscle.

Then, just like that, ODU figures out how to convert all these chances into actual goals. At 54:52, ODU’s Niko Klosterhalfen, near midfield, with his back to the Lobos goal, delivers a through ball to a streaking teammate. Billy and Barreiro can’t recover. Goal ODU.

Less than a minute late, the Monarchs strike again. “That was fast…” the ODU Twitter feed reports. The Monarchs lead 2-0. 

For a team that entered the season with its back against the wall, the time has come to finally rise up, to finally use all of these adversities and challenges to find some sort of greatness deep within their soccer-playing cores.

But this isn’t Hollywood.

“A lot of people felt this should be a unifying or rallying deal,” Fish has said of his team’s bizarre season. “Guys' backs are against the walls, they’re going to perform, right?” Not really. Sometimes when your back is against the wall, it’s just more crowded and more difficult. “Everything that could go wrong, seemed to go wrong,” Fish says.

Down by two goals with the clock winding down on a disappointing season, the Lobos don’t find any magic. But they do keep fighting.

“Come on boys!” Grayson yells from the bench.

“Let’s get one, come on!” from Kelly.

Antoine works with Joe to see if his taped leg will allow for a few more minutes of college soccer.

With fifteen minutes left in the game, the Monarchs score again. On a cross not more than five feet in front of his goal, a Lobos defender errs badly, tapping the ball to a waiting attacker who fires a point blank shot. Ford blocks it, but can’t get to the rebound. Another by standing Monarch finishes it off. 3-0.

With ten minutes left, ODU has 26 shots to UNM’s 4. Ford has 10 saves. With the final minutes winding down, Dorsey, the fifth-year senior, subs back in.

The Monarchs get one more. On a breakaway. Then, finally, mercifully, the game ends. The Lobos end their season with a 4-0 loss in the first round of the conference tournament.

antoine

(Antoine, out with an injury, watches the final seconds of UNM men’s soccer)

Kelly, Mike, Fish and Champ all head out on the field as soon as the action is over. There are hugs and handshakes all around. Antoine can barely move; Billy and Simon each take an arm and help the injured Frenchman towards the team van. 

There are some tears. Gallo and Miguel, two freshmen who played major minutes and formed a close bond off the field, share a long hug.

Back at the hotel, it takes half an hour to figure out which flights everyone will head out on in the morning. Anthony, the freshman keeper, gets first pick because his sister is playing in the New Mexico state soccer tournament tomorrow.

With all the logistics sorted, there’s no business left. No more practices or games for the players. No more recruiting or planning for the coaches. Just an uncertain future.

With pizza boxes at his right and left and his flat brimmed hat in his hands, Fish searches for the right words.

“I don’t know what to say…” He shifts in his seat. “I don’t think another college team has been asked to deal with what we did.” Then he apologizes for not keeping his word in terms of the promises he made when recruiting these guys—namely to get them to graduation—and for his coaching during the season. It was not his best year, he says.

“Proud is a funny word,” he continues. Some of the players meet their coach’s intense gaze, others fidget with their water bottles. “We didn’t get the results but I’m as proud of this group as any in my 27 years.”

*** 

With the playing of soccer done, all that’s left is the politics—a contact sport in and of itself in the state of New Mexico. 

Of course, there have been politics throughout.

In July, Democrat politicians held a press conference promising to reverse the cuts. 

In August, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and then Democratic candidate for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham filmed a Facebook statement of support for UNM soccer.

On September 14, as the Lobos were mired in their losing home stand, Michelle Lujan Grisham pledged directly to save soccer. “It’s outrageous,” she said in a gubernatorial forum. “I will work immediately with the Legislature to provide whatever oversight and investment we need to immediately restore those programs.” 

On September 21, in response to MLG’s promise, the Albuquerque Journal editorial board shot back at Lujan Grisham. “Lujan Grisham Earns Red Card for UNM Pandering,” read the headline. 

Every week or so a new story or statement would come from state leader that would fan the flames.

For those supporters of Lobo soccer, there was always at least of flicker of hope that the politicians would reverse the decision.

On October 2, Fish—working with the support staffs of some of the politicians who had come out as pro-soccer—provided his own editorial to the Journal. “I applaud elected officials for standing up for what’s right and committing to find common-sense solutions that New Mexicans can get behind,” he wrote.

On November 6, Lujan Grisham was elected Governor of New Mexico.

On November 7, the Lobos played their final game, losing to Old Dominion University in the CUSA tournament.

From there the politics only intensified. MLG did not, despite her campaign trail promises, immediately weigh in on the matter of UNM soccer.

Other Democrats, however, bolstered by control of all three branches of the New Mexico government did. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf waited just a week after the election. “Restoring the UNM Men’s Soccer program is a priority for the House going into the legislative session,” he told the press.

In December, it’s announced that Simon has won the Google Cloud Academic All-America of the year award—basically the academic Heisman for college soccer. 

simon

(Simon Spangenberg—Winner of DI Soccer’s most prestigious academic honor)

The final final debate finally occurred when the New Mexico legislature assembled in January 2019.

On January 24, 2019, Democratic leaders in the New Mexico legislature (Lundstrom and Egolf among them) introduced House Bill 320, a measure which would appropriate $2 million to UNM to reinstate the cut sports. “House Leaders offer $2M to save UNM soccer,” read the Albuquerque Journal headline the next day.

But this was just the opening move. In the days that followed, it became clear that a wide divide existed over whether the state of New Mexico, always near the bottom of all the state-comparing lists (childhood poverty, education, crime, etc) should devote extra money to university sports. And whether politicians should micro-manage the affairs of a university.

As a result, a Republican introduced a counter-measure: if UNM was going to get its soccer team back, New Mexico State should get money for a men’s team too (they’ve never had one). Editorials went back and forth in the Journal and the Santa Fe New Mexican.

In February, President Stokes appeared before Lundstrom’s Appropriations Committee. Stokes explained that, yes, the university wanted more money from the state, but not with such strings attached. She made the case that only recurring money would really change the Athletic Department’s financial situation.

A stalemate resulted.

When the legislature finished its work in March, the extra $2 million to restore soccer had been stripped from UNM’s appropriation.

What had been started in July, and then redone in August, and then argued throughout the fall season and into the spring, was finally done.

***

College soccer players play soccer. Thus University of New Mexico’s pledge to honor the scholarships of the members of the men’s soccer team through graduation, while well-meaning, had little appeal. Everyone left.

News of players transferring slowly trickled out. Nick Taylor and Matt Puig did not return to Albuquerque for the spring 2019 semester. Taylor chose SMU; Puig signed on with Creighton.

In January, Mike accepted an assistant coach position with New Mexico United in the USL Championship, an expansion team that would play its games just across the street from where Mike had coached and played with the Lobos.

In March, Champ, who had paid his bills as a volunteer assistant on Fish’s staff by coaching a club team and working summer camps, took a full time assistant’s position with the North Carolina State Wolfpack.

Those that could turn professional, did so. Aaron Scott (aka Mel Gibson) signed a professional contract back home in Scotland. Erik Virgen signed with the USL League One side FC Tucson.

erik virgen

(Erik Virgen after scoring his first professional goal)

Finding a good spot for everyone became the sole remaining mission for Fish and Kelly as the spring progressed. “That’s all we did,” Fish says. But if it was Fish’s mission, Kelly was still the one carrying out the details. “Kelly almost single-handedly made sure every single player was placed,” Fish told the Journal. “I give him all the credit. He was unreal.”

All of the starters with remaining eligibility went to strong DI programs. Here’s where they went:

Ford: UC Irvine

Bailey, Billy, and Nick Williams: UNLV

Grayson: UAB

Puig: Creighton

Nick Taylor: SMU

Nick Barreiro: Grand Canyon

Omar: Cal State Northridge

Tom: Akron

Miguel: Northern Illinois

Alex Fetterly: VCU

For those that red-shirted, or played only sparingly, the process was a bit more difficult. But they too found places to continue their soccer and educational journeys.

***

Rest assured, the University of New Mexico’s fantastic soccer facilities are hardly lying dormant this fall.

Heather Dyche and her women’s squad are underway for the 2019 season, looking to build upon last year’s conference championship. Things are just a bit quieter. “We miss them a lot,” Dyche told an Albuquerque news channel recently.

Ironically, as the Lobos men’s soccer program died a slow and painful death, New Mexico United enjoyed a spectacular ascent in the USL Championship. United, with Mike as an assistant and three former Lobos on the roster, are currently in the midst of a dream inaugural season. They are leading the USL in attendance. They also announced plans for a development arm, providing the youth soccer players of Albuquerque something akin to a Development Academy team experience. Imagine how that might have helped Lobos’ recruiting.

But the program is gone. Fish cleaned out his office on June 29. The Albuquerque Journal sent a report to cover the final closing of the door.

Fish’s plans for the future are uncertain. So too are Kelly’s.

What then remains?

A legacy of excellence, yes. The life lessons learned by former Lobos, of course. A warning about the future of DI men’s soccer, I think so. 

But mostly, I’ll remember the players.

This was a group of young men who, thrust into a difficult situation, always kept competing. They did their work in the classroom. The made some mistakes on and off the field, sure, but they never stopped fighting. They remained connected. They found joy in the game of soccer. They kept things in perspective. And through it all, they did the state of New Mexico proud.

They will be missed.

Ryan Swanson is an Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico. He studies the role of sports in America, and is the author of the recently released The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete.

 
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